Teenage defender Reece Welch believes his improved physicality has laid the foundation for his fine form for Club and country, as he revealed the integral role Everton Under-23s boss David Unsworth has played in his development this season.
Everton Under-23s are in Premier League action against Leicester City on Friday (7pm GMT kick-off) and you can watch the game LIVE on our official YouTube channel! Coverage begins at 6.45pm.
Welch, 18, has grown in stature throughout his maiden campaign as a fully-fledged Under-23s player, with the centre-back’s assured and authoritative performances earning him a maiden cap for England Under-20s in November.
The Yorkshire-born youngster says he has savoured the opportunity to regularly test himself against more experienced opponents for Everton this term.
Welch explained a determined focus to develop his strength and athleticism has taken his all-round game to fresh heights.
“I feel like I’ve stepped up to the challenge of moving up to the Under-23s,” he told evertonfc.com.
“Last season, I was only getting a taste of it, so I didn’t know how challenging it could be to play at this level week after week.
“Now, I’m starting regularly in games, and I feel like I’ve been able to elevate my performances and get the level I need to be at.
“I’ve been going to the gym and improving physically, so I can keep up with the pace and strength you need.
“I enjoy it [the gym work]. The sports scientists and I go through my scores in certain exercises to see how much progress I’ve made. I’ve made quite a big step up over the past year.”
Welch is also benefiting from the technical and tactical guidance provided by Under-23s boss Unsworth.
The Everton Giant played 350 First-Team matches for the Blues and Welch outlined the key areas he has progressed under Unsworth's tutelage.
“Unsy was a top centre-back, so he has really helped me come on defensively,” he says.
“I’ve improved a lot with my one-v-one defending and just being more aggressive in general.
“We’ve also started look at my work in possession. I feel like that has been one of my main strengths and I actually used to be a striker, so I’m comfortable on the ball.
“But I just want to keep getting better and better, because I know I need to keep improving.”
Welch, who joined Everton aged seven, has regularly been capped for England at age-group level.
His England Under-20s debut in November came just two months after he celebrated his 18th birthday – and he outlined how that step up provided a valuable learning curve.
“I’m still eligible for the Under-19s, so playing a year above away was a really good experience,” he says.
“The standard was so high, especially the speed at which the players move the ball and their decision-making. You need to be able to make those split-second decisions and use the ball in the right way.”
He added: “This season, I want to keep playing regularly for Everton Under-23s and try to push to train with the First Team more often.
“Hopefully, I can go away with England for the Under-19 Euros in the summer and try to be successful there.”
Watch Everton Under-23s in Premier League 2 action against Leicester City on Friday night LIVE on our official YouTube channel! Kick-off is at 7pm GMT and our coverage begins at 6.45pm.